The Delta National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the Mississippi River is a haven for ducks and hunters alike. Here’s what you need to know if you go, including the latest on the roseau cane die-off.
At exactly 6:09 a.m. what was obviously a hen gray duck hovered close in over the coot decoys. Chip Crews chopped it down with one shot.
Dawn would be late coming under the leaden skies.
That bird was immediately followed by a fuzz ball. Shane Abel shot twice to drop it.
The one-legged wise man from his cat bird’s seat between the two shooters quipped, “Why did you have to shoot twice?”
That sage was Woody Crews, Metairie insurance executive and Chip’s father. The younger man, an avidly gung-ho waterfowl hunter and offshore fisherman, owns his own contracting business, Overkill Construction.
Abel, at 30, two years younger than Chip, is also a general contractor. The savvy outdoorsman’s 18-year friendship with the Crews family is centered around hunting and fishing with them.
Abel stepped off the bow of the boat into a pirogue to take the downed bird from Morgan, Chip’s chocolate Labrador retriever.
“Great!” he muttered in disgust. “It’s a spoonbill. I’ll call it a gray duck.”
Mislabeling it didn’t help. The Crews gang poured the ribbing on him.
“Hey,” he defended himself, “It was too early on a cloudy day to identify it right.”
When the third bird zipped in, the hunters were poised to shoot when Chip called them off with the declaration, “Flying ham.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“A cleaned scaup looks like a Chisesi (a well-known New Orleans ham company) with wings,” he laughed loudly. The trio didn’t want to take home any scaup.
All three proved to be expert bird indentifiers, knocking off ringnecks later in the day, but letting their look-alike scaup cousins go.
From there it was game-on — elegant pintails, bread-and-butter gadwalls (gray ducks), bandit-masked green-winged teal,and a couple of blue-wings thrown in for variety.
Increasing daylight revealed that we were set up in a 150-yard wide roseau cane-ringed cove off of a huge “pond,” most of which was wide open.
Chip rated conditions “good” after set-up and before shooting hours. A 10- to 15-mile per hour wind was gusting from the east. “East and south winds push water into Delta National Wildlife Refuge,” he explained.
“I like an east wind too because the sun comes up behind your back.”
As they expected, birds were almost constantly in the air until 8 a.m. As long as ducks were flying and workable, the men called. They blew mallard calls occasionally, but usually they had something else in their mouths.
Chip seemed to like his teal call, but acknowledged its limitations. “I blow the crap out of it, but it only works 4 percent of the time,” he laughed uproariously. Sometimes one of them gave a few diving duck rattles, but all three of them leaned most heavily on their pintail whistles, no matter what species of duck they were working.
It was effective.
Woody Crews, limited by his prosthetic foot, wasn’t quite as nimble about jumping to his feet to shoot as were the two younger men, but all three were crack shots.
The steady flights of ducks slowed to dribs and drabs at 8 a.m., but by 8:55 a.m., 24 ducks — limits for all four guns — were lying on the boat’s deck.
On a falling tide, they quickly picked up their decoys with the pirogue. It looked like it would be impossible to get the outboard loaded with four men and a dog out to deeper water.
But Chip somehow got the big boat up on plane and crossed 200 yards of 2-inch deep water with a huge brown rooster tail arching behind the boat.
It was beautiful — and breakfast was calling at the camp.
Setting up in the canes
Hunters are lured to the vast 49,000 acre Delta National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the Mississippi River by the huge number of ducks the area holds. But getting to those birds has stark challenges.
First, refuge regulations prohibit the use of mudboats, airboats, and for that matter, any air-cooled propulsion engines. That means that surface drives are out, essentially leaving hunters with outboard motor powered boats and pirogues (or kayaks and canoes).
Secondly, permanent blinds are prohibited and the naturally occurring vegetation that is suitable for hiding hunters is pretty much limited to roseau cane — a 12-foot tall grass.
Many hunters run their outboards to the nearest deep water close to where they want to hunt, then paddle and push pole their way into the shallow ponds. They position their pirogues in the canes, and then shoot from the tippy craft.
But Chip Crews, Shane Abel and Woody Crews have mastered the art of inserting and hiding an outboard powered boat in the tall, dense roseaus that dominate the delta vegetation and creating a stable shooting platform — something especially important to the handicapped elder Crews.
Well before daylight, Chip looked for a slight opening in the canes near a modest point. After unloading Abel in the pirogue, he turned the boat to a sharp angle to the front edge of the canes and revved the powerful outboard motor to jam the boat in far enough for the foot of the motor to lodge on the canes’ root matt.
After the boat was positioned, he ran the engine at 1,500 rpm trimmed all the way down to wash a 4-foot deep hole behind the motor. This step was important, he explained, because it will allow the motor enough purchase to back the boat out of the canes under its own power.
Properly positioned, the boat will be setting parallel to the edge of the canes, but far enough inside of them to provide a “wall” in front of the boat.
With Abel working from the pirogue outside, the two Crews prepared the blind from the inside of the boat. First, they drove two push poles into the mud, upside end down, until only 2 or 3 feet stuck out of the water. One pole was driven just off the bow; the other was near the stern.
Chip pulled armloads of canes that were to make up the wall of the blind toward the boat into a vertical position. While he did this, Abel in the pirogue strung black nylon twine tied from one push pole to the other to keep the erect wall vertical during the hunt.
After the wall of canes was straight enough to make an impressive blind wall, Chip broke the tops of the canes off to be just at eye level of the sitting hunters.
While he did this, Abel push-poled the pirogue across the bow of the big boat in a “crossing the T” position. Only the bow of the little craft protruded from the canes.
The retriever sat in the pirogue during the hunt. When he returned with downed birds, Abel would step from the bow of the big boat down into the pirogue to take the kill from the dog.
Shallow water customization
After riding in the Crews’ boat, it was obvious that this wasn’t just a simple off-the-shelf rig. The hull itself was relatively straightforward, a 16-foot long fiberglass-kevlar flatboat.
But the motor ….
To begin with, it was a 90 HP Yamaha with a tiller handle — a lot of horses on a small boat without a steering wheel. “The big motor lets me get the boat up in the mud,” grinned Chip Crews mischievously.
The motor was mounted on a hydraulic jack plate to allow for shallow water operation.
Changing the engine’s propeller was another adaptation for chopping the slop. They replaced the normal 3-bladed prop with a 4-bladed version. Before Crews installed the 4-bladed wheel, he took it to a prop shop and got them to add more cup to each blade.
“The prop ‘bites’ better,” he explained, “and the added cup reduces cavitation.” The downside is a lower top end speed and the engine burns more fuel. Also, the engine does not operate as effectively in reverse.
“This boat works well in shallow water, but it really sucks in deep water. It is hard to handle. It’s an odd feeling — the motor can really pull.”
Finally, the entire rig, motor and all, is painted olive drab to blend into the canes. It’s ugly, but it works.
Small changes in the operation of the boat are also critical in getting the boat up on plane where it can operate in very shallow water. One trick that Crews uses is to run the boat hard very near the edge of the roseau canes to get it planing before turning into shallower water.
“The water near the canes is about 3 or so inches deeper, but that’s a lot,” he said. “Plus the bottom is softer there too.”
Bring lots of decoys
Successful duck hunting at the mouth of the Mississippi River — with its vast marshes and huge flocks of waterfowl setting everywhere — demands a lot of decoys. Passing birds won’t give a second glance to 1 or 2 dozen dekes.
Ten dozen decoys are in the normal set-up for the three hunters. Six dozen coot decoys and a dozen ducks were set in the pond directly out from the boat’s stern. Off of the bow, they set 3 dozen duck decoys in a loosely spread cluster.
The dekes were set as an evenly spread flock that they called a “force field.” None of the decoys were set out of shotgun range. Textbook V-sets or J-hook decoy spreads with landing zones are never used.
Woody gave a succinct and simple reason: “They don’t work any better than our force field does.”
Large numbers of coot decoys were used because the hunters believe that today’s ultra-wary waterfowl approach a spread of coots more readily than one made up of all duck decoys.
Learning from experience, the birds have learned that approaching all-duck spreads is dangerous. Most of the duck decoys they do use are pintail, gadwall, wigeon and redhead decoys.
Few of the duck decoys are mallards, the backbone of most hunters’ spreads. “There are not many mallards down here (on Mississippi Delta) and we want to look as natural as possible,” explained Chip.
Wrapping decoy weight lines around the necks of 120 dekes is a massive job, so the men have turned to making homemade tangle-free decoy rigs. An egg sinker is smashed with a sledge hammer onto one end of a 3 to 4 feet length of 400-pound test monofilament line.
Two-ounce eggs are standard for teal decoys and 6-ounces are used for large decoys. The other end of the line is crimped onto the decoy using an aluminum crimp.
This set-up allows decoys to be sacked as quickly as they can be retrieved. A simple shake of the decoy taken from the sack will free the weight, as the stiff monofilament prevents tangling.
Tips of the day
Operating a water-cooled engine in the half mud, half rotten vegetation slop that passes for water in the marshes at the mouth of the river seems like an impossible mission.
After a particularly nasty bout that churned the water black, threw great gobs of putrid marsh bottom into the boat and triggered the alarm on the engine, I asked Chip Crews about how he deals with the engine overheating
“Sometimes you just have to listen to it (the alarm buzzer) sing,” he laughed guiltily.
But the hunters do have some tips for keeping cooling water flowing through the engine.
First he keeps a small nylon bristle brush handy to clean the water intakes on the foot of the motor. And he uses it often.
Even more ingenius is his use of Duster dust and lint remover. Essentially bottles of highly compressed air, they are sold to clean computers and other electronics.
Crews uses them to blast into the engine’s tattle tail to free up packed sand and vegetation clogging the line. The powerful blast doesn’t just clear the tattle tail — it blows the offending junk back up into the engine.
One modification is made to the tattle tail to help prevent it from clogging with debris. They remove and discard the tattle tail nozzle inside the cowling that the water discharge line attaches to, and run the line straight out the hole the nozzle was in. The nozzle’s nipple inside the line is the first place that debris collects to block the line.
Crews offers one caution about any outboard’s water pump used under these conditions, however. The impeller and housing must be changed every year because fine river sands erode the material as effectively as an emery cloth.
Are the canes in trouble?
In early summer, South Louisiana news media exploded with reports of massive die offs of roseau cane at the mouth of the river below Venice. Something between serious concern and panic set in amongst fishermen, hunters and habitat conservationists alike.
Roseau cane has been called the glue that holds the delta’s sinking wetlands together. They can grow with their roots permanently submerged in water, something few grasses besides this 9 to 15-foot tall grass can do. They are also very resistant to salinity changes.
Dr. Rodrigo Diaz, assistant professor of entomology within the LSU AgCenter and one of a five-member team put together by the university to attack the problem, said that a scale insect commonly called a mealy bug was a major culprit in the die-offs.
But he was quick to add that other stressors may be spurring the insect attacks by weakening the canes. These could include other diseases, increasing water depth or sediment toxins.
Another team member, Dr. Jim Cronin, an LSU plant and animal ecologist, agreed. In Europe, roseau cane die-offs were found to be due to a combination of factors.
“That is likely to be the case here,” he said. “A combination of causative factors could be at work, and scale insects are just tipping the balance toward die-offs.”
He noted that there is evidence of roseau cane die-offs in Cameron Parish, where there are no mealy bugs present.
The bugs, which look more like scabby scales on the stems of the plants than insects, do their damage to the plant by sucking its sap. Scientists know it has been present on the delta for four or five years, but suspect it could have been here at least a couple of decades and was simply overlooked because it wasn’t causing damage.
Interestingly, roseau canes themselves almost certainly are an alien species, but have been here so long that no one alive can remember what the delta looked like before they invaded it.
Diaz and Cronin noted that while roseau canes all look alike to the average person, four entirely different genetic strains exist, something that may be key to re-greening the delta.
Approximately 80 percent of the delta’s canes are of the delta variety, the tallest strain and also the one most sensitive to the present die-offs. Ten to 15 percent is made up of the Gulf variety, which is also quite susceptible to die-off. The European variety makes up a couple percent of the delta’s canes and the greeny variety less than that.
“Without a doubt, the European variety is less affected than the other three,” observed Cronin. “Their stands still look like healthy normal cane.”
On his wish list is the ability to produce tremendous numbers of European strain roseaus in greenhouses to plant on the delta and re-green it.
“People should not expect widespread results in greening the delta in a year or even two,” he cautioned.
There are few other tools in the scientists’ tool boxes. The Chinese (the scale is native to China and Japan) control the insect by burning the canes — something difficult to do here on a widespread basis because of the presence of oil and gas infrastructure.
Insecticides hold little promise in the near future. None are approved (and therefore legal) to use in aquatic environments. And insecticides may have unforeseen effects on other animals, such as fish and seafood species.
Still, the scientists are testing them in greenhouse experiments.
“Insecticides are likely to only be useful in spot applications,” said Cronin. “You won’t see widespread aerial application. That’s not going to happen.”
In the meantime, officials are asking that hunters not transport roseau cane. They’re also are requesting that cane debris be removed from boats before leaving local marinas, and that boats be washed with soapy water to prevent the scale from spreading.
Both scientists cling to a glimmer of hope that this could be a two or three year outbreak, with the insect population then reducing itself to background levels. This has happened with some other insects.
But even with a short outbreak, the changes that it triggers — such as soil erosion on the delta — could be permanent.
On the other hand, Diaz said the problem could become additive — worse and worse each year.
While a few areas have had complete roseau cane die-back with no regrowth, typical stands of affected canes still have plants — but in less dense stands, with shorter plants.
Agency biologists feel that hunters this year will still find enough roseau canes from which to hunt.
“Hunters will be able to hunt — absolutely,” said Vaughn McDonald, the wildlife management area (WMA) manager for coastal Louisiana for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
He noted that state and federal public areas are about equally affected by die-backs. On 115,000-acre Pass-a-Loutre WMA, 40 to 50 percent of the cane stands are moderately to severely affected.
With the exception of 50- to 100-acre spots of complete die-back, most of the stressed canes look like December canes in August.
Still, he was positive. “We don’t feel that the situation will affect waterfowl season or the use of natural cover by hunters.”
Barrett Fortier, the Regional Coordinator for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a wildlife biologist and a lifelong Venice duck hunter.
“I am absolutely going to hunt this year,” he said with conviction. “Some areas were wiped out and some have spotty cane regrowth. It’s widespread, but seriously hard hit areas are spotty.
“It’s a little disheartening, but I’m going to hunt.”